The International Steam Pages

“The Punj”, and Stench City (India 1993/94)

Robert Hall reminisces on his first ever trip to India, through the Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, this covers the area north of Delhi. (With Robert's agreement, I have added some images of my own trip north of Delhi just a week later at the end, RD).

In common with many steam enthusiasts, I often feel that as regards “real everyday commercial steam”, I first reached various locations regrettably late in the day – just in time for the “last knockings”. There can be little doubt that this is, broadly, a sentiment which has been harboured by railfans, ever since this means of transport first morphed into a hobby. 

One thinks of T.R. Perkins, who famously took sixty years to travel over all the then-available trackage in the British Isles with public passenger services – finishing his mission in 1932, at the branch-line terminus of Athboy in County Meath. (The picture comes to mind, of Mr. P. alighting there, and proudly boasting of his feat to the stationmaster; and of that official jollying him along – “That’s a wonderful thing, sir, to be sure” – while sidling off to the phone in his office, to discreetly ring the Dublin area’s chief mental hospital at Grangegorman and enquire about any recent escape by a patient…) It would seem certain, though, that Perkins regretted, and smarted over, certain lines abandoned for various reasons in the mid-nineteenth century, to bag which he would have been born too late…

The country visited by me, over which I get this feeling most acutely, is India. Things so worked out that despite a quarter of a century’s reading and drooling over visitors’ reports of Indian steam (for some reason, the equivalent scene in neighbouring Pakistan appealed to me much less) I did not manage to visit the country until late 1993. At that time, reports in the railway journals were indicating that the end for steam on the 5ft 6in gauge in India (hereafter referred to as “broad gauge”) seemed very near – likely to last longer (as indeed it did) on gauges of less width. With my having felt that the “five-foot-six” (broadest gauge in use on the planet -- and in only a few parts thereof -- since the regrettable demise of Mr. Brunel’s brainwave) was above all what the Indian sub-continent’s rail system was “about” – it seemed imperative to get out there and experience the last few drops of broad-gauge steam, plus a helping of what could be got on other gauges.

The trip – three weeks straddling Christmas / New Year of 1993 / 94 (among other things, the climatically least horrid time for Europeans to visit the sub-continent) – was undertaken with a long-time gricing friend whom I will call “B.” We decided that the most expeditious way to tackle what we had in view, would be by car – Indian rail travel being intensely interesting, but fatiguing, difficult, slow, and frustrating. In the course of our tour, we took a few brief steam-hauled train rides; but the trip was essentially road-borne. It was ascertained that total self-drive car hire had recently become possible in India – i.e. fully “do-it-yourself”, not involving an assigned local driver as part of the deal. Charming, and eager to help, though we found most people in India; both of us being somewhat fanatical about the principle of self-reliance and “get what you want – which will probably not coincide with what anyone else wants”, we greatly preferred to be, metaphorically and literally, in the driving seat. In the “literal” department – that had to be B. throughout, since I have never learned to drive. He did a magnificent and exhausting job, under highly exacting conditions, for the three weeks of our tour. (Some conscience-salving for me, as regards this load on my companion’s shoulders: he being the one of us with the busier and more crowded “real life” back home, by mutual agreement I basically did the preliminary research and planning for the bash.) 

Road travel in India is not for the faint-hearted – the country’s roads have been described as “a slaughterhouse”. Combination of a road infrastructure comparable to that of 1950s Europe, but with a decades-later intensity of traffic; and local driving habits coupling great aggressiveness, with often a less-than-ideal degree of attention to what is going on… the lorries tend to be both the most numerous, and the worst. The fun is added to, by many animal-drawn carts, with those in charge both confident that they have equal rights with the more technically-advanced stuff, and with little grasp of the concept of “defensive driving”. Incidentally, we were a little surprised to find – west and south of Delhi – camel haulage on many of these vehicles; stereotypes and prejudices getting into play, no doubt – “camels mean…” India’s roads feature frequent and horrible accidents, and many hairsbreadth escapes from same (the railway system’s safety record has many blemishes, but overall one may rest somewhat easier travelling by rail). In three weeks, we had a couple of “near-death experiences” – the potential worst avoided, by B.’s skill and quick reactions – and although we did not actually witness, “real-time”, any mangled-and-maimed-bodies happenings, numerous scenes were observed where that had, clearly, occurred, with the metallic wreckage still greatly in evidence. 

All this meant a cautious rate of progress being indicated – and earlier-on, driving by night being seen as out of the question. Later in the tour, with B. – my hat’s off to him – progressively getting the hang of the Indian rule (or total lack thereof) of the road, we did some night travelling; but in the earlier part of the three weeks, “no way”. Independent car travel the most efficient means, without doubt, of getting to the most places, the quickest; but it took us a little time to realise that even so, it was less quick and easy than its equivalent even in the more old-fashioned parts of Europe…

Other things contributed. The car itself was one hindrance – it was not in the best of shape mechanically, and a couple of minor breakdowns “out in the sticks”, had to be remedied. Local mechanics were highly competent, and keen to help; but enlisting their aid, unavoidably consumed time. Also, the sheer business of navigation. Some direction-indicating road signs were in English, but rather more were in Hindi, incomprehensible to us. And the maps which we had, Indian-produced (none available to match, from other sources) were somewhat slapdash as regards many – smallish, but crucial when on the spot – details. Additionally – in retrospect, a foolish omission concerning which we could easily have checked with the guidebooks beforehand – the hours of daylight turned out to be none too generous: 0700 to slightly post-1800, at best. These factors added up toward the one biggest frustration of this grice: our being able to cover less ground than our plans (seen, when made, as pessimistic and conservative) had envisaged.

Area of India targeted – this had to be determined first-off, by the about-to-vanish-broad-gauge-steam factor. As at late 1993, the overwhelmingly largest remaining clusters of same were on India’s Northern Railway, essentially north of Delhi. Come the early 1990s, steam class variety in India had reached rock-bottom. On the broad and metre gauges there remained active only the post-Independence last generation of steam classes. Broad gauge: – “general” (originally designed for express passenger) WP 4-6-2, “light” WL 4-6-2, WG 2-8-2 . Metre gauge – YP 4-6-2, YG 2-8-2. Such interesting-and-older variety as was left, was found on some of the 2’ 6 “ and 2’ gauge lines – none of such steam-worked, in the areas within our reach.

Our original plan – focusing on areas seen to be in fairly comfortable range of Delhi -- revolved around “cover the broad gauge first”. The state of Punjab, north-west of the capital, had to be visited; it being the last venue where class WL were in service. (It turned out that India’s very last everyday-scheduled broad gauge steam action was with WL in Punjab, not quite two years after our visit.) Regarding the other two broad-gauge classes, plans were fluid – one possibility (given good luck) seen as being, to have a fairly speedy reckoning with the broad gauge, thus allowing plentiful time for “sub-five-foot-six” matters. The Agra region, south of Delhi, contained the Taj Mahal (figured-in for a cultural interlude), and metre-gauge lines of the North Eastern Railway, with plentiful steam action, including – something which had become very rare in India – steam-hauled line working on freight. And, 500 km-odd south-west of Delhi, the Western Railway’s metre-gauge lines centred on Udaipur, offered steam doings in hilly and scenic surroundings – otherwise largely absent in Northern India’s dully flat landscapes. Lastly, I wished for a token look-in at, and if possible brief ride on, something on the narrow gauge – which in the area to which we were restricted, would have had to be diesel. Likeliest candidate for this exercise was seen as the 2’ 6” gauge system based on Dhaulpur, south of Agra. B.’s interest in anything non-steam was minimal, but he was willing to humour me in this.

The best possible case, wasn’t to be. As recounted above, we’d been – re “India overall” -- too optimistic in our planning. Plus the best of luck was, in the event, not with us, concerning what broad-gauge steam turned out to be found where. By the time justice to the broad-gauge scene had been done, it was wretchedly clear that we had enough holiday remaining to cover just one or the other, of the two envisaged metre-gauge venues. B. and I focused on different respective sides of the hobby: he was before anything else, a scenic and artistic photographer, whereas I was a taker-in and enjoyer of the rail and steam scene in general, relatively indifferent to photography. Our metre-gauge top preferences were different: Agra for me, Udaipur for him -- inevitably one of us was going to be not totally happy. We discussed the situation and how to address it – ultimately (I forget whether we tossed a coin for it, or what) Udaipur was decided on. And there was simply no time for a narrow-gauge interlude: absolutely no narrow-gauge line lay anywhere conveniently on our route. A possibility was seen of – time permitting – on the way back from Udaipur to Delhi for flight home, taking a rapid look at the Western Railway / Northern Railway metre-gauge steam action around Jaipur and / or Rewari.

In Indian steam’s last years, photography did not pose dreadful problems, but wasn’t totally “plain sailing”. Permits could readily be got by writing in advance to Indian Railways’ headquarters in Delhi, and doing this was strongly recommended – most of the time, railway photography bothered nobody on the activity’s scene; but in a fairly security-conscious country with its share of civil disturbances and troubles – and problems with neighbours -- one was liable occasionally to be challenged, and in such circumstances, it was good to have an authorising document to produce. Various parts of India, at various times, “cop” a greater-than-average share of ideological strife; in the early nineties, Punjab was an instance of this, with grievances on the part of adherents of the locally predominant Sikh faith, resulting in a certain incidence of violence and death. This was not at such a level as to render normal life impossible, and tourists were not barred from Punjab; but the “gricing intelligence” informed, that with the tension which obtained, official permits for rail photography in the state were not granted. There were no WL elsewhere, so to Punjab we must perforce go. Our strategy was to apply for a permit for everywhere else we might conceivably visit, except for Punjab; and to head for that state at the start of the bash, find out on the spot how things stood as regards photting, and act according to what we found. Should the worst possible situation -- “Iron Curtain-type” paranoia – obtain there: if we got in bother and had our taken pics confiscated by authority, we would lose only what we had got in the troubled area; and would move on from there, to more stable regions for which we had documented permission.

This plan worked excellently: as it turned out, photography “sans” permit in Punjab, was virtually trouble-free. Elsewhere on the tour, our permit – a magnificent document listing all envisaged venues (in no order that made obvious sense) was required to be produced only once, at Saharanpur; but having it in case of need, was reassuring.

Our route from Delhi up into Punjab was a little circuitous, in order to investigate some marginal steam possibilities. One of such, was the cluster of broad-gauge secondary lines based on Jind – as per last-heard information, all passenger on these lines WG-worked. Our carefully planned showing-up at the terminus of one of these workings, found it to be diesel; a bad omen, and we subsequently learned from another enthusiast whom we met, that Jind had recently gone totally diesel. We continued west and then north, following one of the Northern Railway’s rather few metre-gauge lines – this one running from Rewari, west of Delhi, some 300 km north-west to Bhatinda and Fazilka, and reported at the time, to be steam-worked on passenger. There has been an ongoing programme in recent decades, to convert main lines of India’s metre-gauge network, to broad gauge. In late 1993, this was being implemented on the Rewari – Bhatinda – Fazilka line, with visible evidence of the work in progress; trains still ran, however, on the metre gauge – we witnessed a couple of passenger workings, headed by YP Pacifics in seemingly dire condition. On the whole, throughout our tour, steam locos appeared mostly rather the worse for wear – these YP were, however, truly knacker’s-yard candidates. We later found, at Rewari, locos based there to be, in general, in very bad shape; reasonable to assume that the 4-6-2’s we saw on our way to Bhatinda, were Rewari engines.

Starting from Delhi in the afternoon, we overnighted at the Rewari – Bhatinda mid-point of Hisar; and end of the first full day of the tour, brought us into Jullundur, a big Punjab steam centre, though no longer with a “pukka” steam loco shed – had been downgraded to the status of loco stabling / servicing point. The next three nights were spent at Jullundur’s pleasant and home-like Rose Garden Hotel.

Our first Jullundur-based day took us to Jullundur City station, where we made our “petition for on-site photographic permission”. It took a couple of hours’ waiting, and bureaucratic messing-around, before we could actually get to see the Station Superintendent and request “per” – when in the end, we met with the great man, it was a matter of seconds – he just said “fine, go ahead” and dismissed us, and we proceeded to phot without let or hindrance.

By 1993, the very great majority of surviving Indian Railways steam action on the broad and metre gauges, was on local and branch passenger trains – extremely little freight of any kind, was steam-hauled. This was a trend for “steam’s last dregs”, in a number of countries – things went thus in Poland, and some other countries of Eastern Europe; also to a large extent in India’s “alter ego” and rival, Pakistan. Possibly because of my British background (in British Railways’ phasing-out of steam, the tendency -- with many exceptions -- having been for passenger to go diesel, while steam persisted longer on freight workings) steam’s last widespread use being on local passenger, always felt to me a sad and humiliating come-down for the steam loco, and somehow “not right”. However, by the 1990s (and earlier) one was glad of steam line working “of any shape or make”, and in no position to be choosy about the kind of duties performed.

This was the way of things around Jullundur, located on the important trunk line between Delhi, Amritsar, and the rail crossing-point into Pakistan; and the junction for a cluster of branch and secondary lines. Steam handled many main-line passenger locals, and passenger trains on the lesser lines. It soon became clear that steam hereabouts, was very predominantly WL. Quite attractive locos, and the factor which had brought us to Punjab. Otherwise – with all due respect to the pleasant and hospitable citizenry – we would not have gone to this part of the country, with its troubled political situation, and uniformly flat and uninteresting landscape. Reports from other “bashers” with which we had primed ourselves, had suggested that class WP had quite a high profile in Punjab too; but by the time we got there, WP appeared to be becoming rare in the area – a bit of a disappointment. This handsome semi-streamlined former express passenger class, had become over time, many people’s first-springing-to-mind image of the Indian steam railway scene. The non-streamlined WL had a decidedly “penny-plain” look in comparison. All that we saw happening on the WP front around Jullundur, was, on one day of our stay, one of the class hanging around Jullundur City station, light engine; and later that day, the same or another WP in steam at the loco stabling point.

A pleasure of India by the early 1990s was its being more or less the last place on earth where one could see regular-daily-service steam locos painted in any colours other than the elsewhere almost universal (perhaps relieved with red wheels and / or motion) workaday black. To a large extent, the subsidiary “Railways” into which the overall Indian Railways system is divided, had their distinguishing “house” loco liveries; though in earlier decades, when steam prospered more, there was considerable and sometimes very colourful variation, among machines of the same Railway. In 1993 / 94 in the areas which we visited, things were drabber in comparison; nonetheless, by then virtually unique worldwide. Essentially, most of the locomotive was black or grey; but, especially on the notionally “passenger” classes (some WG and YG were plain black) the cab and tender were painted in a contrasting colour – which on both Northern and Western Railways, was red. The bullet-nosed WP semi-streamliners often bore various paintwork embellishments at their smokebox end.

For a couple of days, we made the most of the abundant WL local passenger action around Jullundur, including car-chasing trains on a couple of the branch lines radiating from the city; and taking a ride behind WL 15107 (the last of the class, built in 1968) on the 40 km branch north-east from Jullundur to Hoshiarpur. At the latter terminus, we saw a large number of goods wagons in the sidings, prompting us to wonder how this apparently considerable freight traffic was handled – general “form” suggested, drearily, diesel loco as the likeliest answer. To our pleasure, this surmise was shown to be at least not totally correct. While “doing” the Hoshiarpur branch by car the following day, we observed the 0945 Hoshiarpur – Jullundur City running as a “mixed” (not marked as such in the timetable): WL 15086, followed by eight or ten goods vans, with the coaches bringing up the rear. This was the one and only instance of any kind of freight line working by steam, that we saw in a three-weeks’ tour.

Our finding the Jullundur area so WP-poor, prompted us to head for another of Punjab’s chief steam centres, Amritsar, 80 km to the west. En route between the two cities, the wayside station of Beas (called after the river of that name) on the adjacent main line, evoked poignant thoughts. This region was the scene of many ugly events at the time of India and Pakistan’s independence and partition in 1947. Much of the killing then, revolved around trains crowded with refugees heading into India and Pakistan, according to respective religion; there came to memory an account read, of a particularly nasty such massacre at this location – in 1947 called “Beas Junction”, though it was not operationally a junction even then; the branch line which had formerly taken off from this point, was closed as a World War II economy measure, and never reinstated.

Amritsar yielded some gricing success, but not what could be called a resounding triumph. (We did take normal-tourism time out, to visit the Golden Temple, world centre of Sikhdom; a magnificent place, and a moving experience even for a couple of non-culture-addicts.) The line north-east from Amritsar to Pathankot was reputed to be good for WP – though specific workings by the class could not be guaranteed, anywhere in Punjab: it was “the luck of the draw”. We saw plentiful WL comings and goings, and a pair of WP running, light engine, into Amritsar station; but diesels were found to be infiltrating on turns hitherto reported steam. Finally we got – relatively – lucky with the elusive class: WP 7197 was observed and photographed, in morning mist, on the late-running 0630 local from Batala on the Pathankot line, to Amritsar.

With our at last having bagged, in train-hauling action, “A Wup in the Punj”, as B. put it, we reckoned it time to move on; and headed away from Punjab, without great regret – albeit our four days there had been pleasant enough, and everyone we dealt with, had been agreeable and welcoming. The area’s “troubles” hardly impinged on our rail photography: our experience at Jullundur City station has been recounted – otherwise we were doing our stuff in the countryside, mostly away from stations, and nobody bothered us. We saw no horrid happenings, or evidence thereof, while in the area, and the overall feel was of tranquillity and “business as usual”: reinforcement for the often-experienced feeling that the news media – in the course of just doing their job – tend to put a rather lopsided and misleading “spin” on things. We did see large numbers of armed military / paramilitary personnel, many designated on their uniforms as “Punjab Home Guard”; but we got next to no trouble from these people, and fairly rapidly adjusted to them as part of the scenery. Were once challenged, in a non-hostile way, by a Home Guard (at a moment when, perhaps luckily, we had no cameras on prominent display), but the matter was quite quickly and easily resolved.

So it was off to the area some 200 km “north-east-by-north” of Delhi – reported as the haunt of WP and WG in plenty. A screw-up on my part caused a wasted day. In the course of pre-grice “homework”, poring over “World Steam” and “Continental Railway Journal”, wishful thinking had done some leading-astray of me. The general area targeted, contained a little system of broad-gauge branch lines diverging at the main-line junction of Laksar -- location of a motive power depot housing members of class WG – and running up into the first foothills of the Himalayas, with one branch terminating at Dehra Dun, and another at Rishikesh. Laksar’s 2-8-2s performed on these branches; insufficiently careful reading of the journals, plus the desire for there to be a fine steam stronghold in scenic surroundings, put into my head a rather exaggerated idea of this scene. In particular, I came to entertain the notion that virtually all passenger on the Dehra Dun branch was WG, including the several daily expresses to / from this popular holiday destination. I thus included in our plans, a spell based in Dehra Dun (incidentally, the subject of a daft song much beloved in the British Raj era). The drive out of Punjab to D.D. did at least take us through tracts of beautiful sub-Himalayan scenery; if we had travelled straight from Punjab to Saharanpur (which would in the event, have delivered best gricing value) we would have seen nowhere north of the capital, anything but dreary, low-lying heavily-farmed plainsland. 

Staking out the Dehra Dun branch a little way short of the terminus, delivered nothing but a succession of diesel-hauled expresses. After a good many hours of this, I had to surmise that I had misinterpreted the on-paper info – which re-examination once back home, confirmed. Expresses to and from Dehra Dun, were diesel – it was only the line’s couple of locals per day, which were WG. Bad gricer ! No biscuit for him ! B. was nobly forbearing about this research blunder of mine. A possibility was seen – again, later confirmed by referring back to the “gen” -- of a higher degree of steam action on the mini-system’s other, shorter line to Rishikesh; but our feeling was that with the days perceptibly ticking by, we would do best to cut our losses as regards these branches, and head straight for the sure-fire WP / WG venue of Saharanpur.

Thus, after one night in Dehra Dun, we took the direct route down into the plains and the big and busy state of Uttar Pradesh: to Saharanpur – a big junction on a south-east / north-west rail axis. At the end of 1993, the city had a steam shed with a large stud of WP and WG. In the event, steam finished here slightly more than six months later; but its business appeared to be still booming in December ’93. As almost everywhere in India where steam survived, what the steam locos did was local passenger, on all routes from Saharanpur. We spent some five days based in the city – a not very attractive place, and seemingly home to some decidedly environment-unfriendly industry. A strange acrid smell was in evidence the majority of the time, and towards the end of our Saharanpur spell and for some days afterwards, we found ourselves with colds and running noses. Still – after a false start accommodation-wise, we found a quite comfortable and well-appointed hotel in the city, and spent the days “valuing” the plentiful steam happenings on local passenger and, in one instance, on a parcels working slated as regularly steam. Pacifics and Mikados seemed to share the action on offer, about 50 / 50. We treated ourselves to a return train journey on the main line north-westwards towards Ambala, alighting at a wayside station giving a fairly prompt turn-round between workings, and letting us do “there and back again” comfortably in daylight. This trip by rail couldn’t have gone better if we had ordered it entirely to our wishes: the outward run was WP-hauled, the return behind a WG. The bash’s relatively few and brief train rides worked out fortunately, in that I (keener on this activity, than B.) ended up getting haulage by all of the available three broad-gauge, and two metre-gauge, classes. Mostly, though, we were car-borne, following trains as best could be done.

There are two alternative rail routes between Saharanpur and Delhi – the more westerly and less heavily-trafficked of the two was once a privately-owned 2’ 6” gauge line – taken over and broad-gauged by Indian Railways around the late 1960s, if I recall correctly. While Saharanpur-based, we concentrated our photting more, on the busier easterly route via Meerut. Heading south towards the capital and the metre gauge on Christmas Day, we followed the “western” route, combining train photography with getting where we needed to go. As intimated previously, if we had done our tour a few months earlier, and / or been more favoured by “dumb luck” – we might have got in the bag, a sufficiency of the three remaining broad-gauge steam classes well before this date; and had more time available for narrower-gauge stuff – but ‘twasn’t so. It might be suggested that India has many proverbs on the general theme of “if”, and “wishes are worth their weight in gold”; but the picture got, is that this part of the world tends not to think that way…

Click here for Part 2.

With Robert's agreement, I have added a few images from my own visit to Jullundur, Ambala and Saharanpur just a few days later. Like many other gricers, I also stayed in the Rose Garden at Jullundur. It wasn't my first trip to India, but it was my first for 17 years and I was soon back again. (RD)

Jullundur bridge advertisement, translation anybody?

WL being coaled at Jullundur shed

WL leaves Jullundur Cantonment (main station)

WL at Nakoda Junction

WG on Saharanpur shed 

WG leaves Saharanpur for the south (Moradabad?)

WP leaving Saharanpur for Ambala

WP leaving Ambala for Saharanpur

WG between Ambala and Saharanpur

Riding the same WG just outside Saharanpur

Finally, a reality check on shed at Saharanpur:

Rob Dickinson